Enlightened 21st-century cruisers and abusers of the internet know the term “gone viral”: a video or tweet, often based on totally bogus handling of the facts, skyrockets to global popularity in days or even hours.
But viral news is as old as news itself.
In the early 1880s, Indiana’s great novelist and war hero, General Lew Wallace, author of the bestselling Ben-Hur, got caught up in one of the more trumped-up tales of nineteenth-century journalism — a story which, it turns out, has an incredibly bizarre “cousin” today, reverberating in the deadly chasms of fantasy that cut through the majestic sierras of the World Wide Web. So beware, fellow climber: Lady Eros and the Yellow Journalist still get together.
The mildly erotic tale begins around 1883, when Lew Wallace was a well-known American public figure. To quickly recap his bio: son of Governor David Wallace of Indiana, the “militant romantic” had served in the worst battles of the Civil War; sat on the trials of the Lincoln conspirators and Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate commander of Andersonville prison; fought as a Juarista general in the Mexican Army during the French invasion of 1865; and as Territorial Governor of New Mexico, he helped reign in the outlaw Billy the Kid.
Slowly propelled to greater fame when the novel Ben-Hur came out, Lew Wallace went to Constantinople in 1881 as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire. The general and his wife, writer Susan Wallace, were ardent Orientalists. Yet Ben-Hur, set in Palestine, was published a year before they ever saw the Middle East, its description based on research in the Library of Congress. Now, the couple traveled around the eastern Mediterranean.
During his four years as an American diplomat in Constantinople, the Hoosier writer became close friends with Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II — though Wallace famously became “the first person to demand that the sultan shake his hand.” When Grover Cleveland was elected U.S. President in 1884, Wallace’s term ended. Abdül Hamid tried to get his friend to stay on and represent Turkish interests in Europe. Wallace, instead, came home to Montgomery County.
(Lew Wallace described watching a Turkish infantry and Circassian cavalry drill with the Ottoman Sultan in his Autobiography, published in 1906.)
The gossip mill, however, was already rolling years before Wallace sailed home to the States. As early as September 2, 1882, the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail reprinted a dramatic story from The Wasp, San Francisco’s acerbic satirical weekly perhaps best-known for its lurid political cartoons attacking Chinese immigration to the West Coast. (The Wasp has been called California’s version of Puck and was staffed by extremely talented, if racist, illustrators.)
“An Unwelcome Present” was syndicated in other papers as far away as New Zealand and often got subtitled along the lines of “What the General’s Wife Thought of the Sultan’s Present.”
As far as I can tell, the tale first originated in the pages of The Wasp on August 5, 1882, where it ran under the title “That Present.” What I find especially fascinating is that the magazine’s editor from 1881 to 1885 was no less than the sardonic Hoosier cynic Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil’s Dictionary had its genesis as a column in the California weekly.
Like Wallace, Bierce fought at the terrifying Battle of Shiloh in 1862, serving as First Lieutenant in the ranks of the Ninth Indiana Infantry. During his days as a journalist, Bierce also worked for William Randolph Hearst at The San Francisco Examiner. To sell papers, the newspaper giant “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.”
(Collections of the California State Library at www.archives.org.)
Did Bierce pen some “yellow journalism” about Lew Wallace and a Turkish harem girl? I wouldn’t put it past him. The Wasp’s editor was one of the biggest misogynists of his day and took constant swipes at women. To me, “An Unwelcome Present” sounds like one of Bierce’s tales or epigrams about the diabolical battle between the sexes, which he always portrayed as just slightly less gory than the bloodbath he and Wallace survived at Shiloh. In any case, the gossipy piece about his fellow Hoosier got published on Ambrose Bierce’s editorial watch.
Here’s the whole comic tale as it appeared on the front page of the Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail:
Writer and poet Susan Wallace, who grew up in Crawfordsville and married Lew in 1852, had no reason to fear her husband would take up with a concubine. Yet Circassian beauties were all the rage during the long heyday of Orientalism.
The exotic Circassian mystique had been around for many decades. Inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains at the eastern end of the Black Sea near Sochi (the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics), Circassians were hailed by 19th-century anthropologists as the apogee of the human form. “Circassophilia” churned out many exotic myths about these people in Europe and America. During the Enlightenment, the French writer Voltaire popularized a belief that Circassian women were the most beautiful on earth, “a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus.” In the 1790s, the invention of the so-called “Caucasian” race occurred when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the founders of physical anthropology, compared the anatomy of the beautiful, martial Circassians of what became North Turkey and southern Russia with the rest of humanity and categorized the mountain folk as the least “degenerate” humans.
Yet by the time of Wallace’s tenure in the Middle East in the 1880s, these tough mountaineers had been subdued by the Russians and Ottomans after long years of bloody warfare. Legends about dazzling Circassian beauties abounded even as Circassia itself disappeared from the map. One popular story went that the main source of wealth for fathers in the region was their breathtakingly beautiful daughters, whom they sold off to Turkish slave markets, though as writer in The Penny Magazine thought in 1838, Circassian women were “exceedingly anxious to be sold,” since life in a Turkish harem was “preferable to their own customs.” In Constantinople, they were highly prized in harems — not to be confused with Western prostitution. American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child devoted a chapter to Circassia in her 1838 History of the Condition of Women.
(Women from the Caucasus were known for their luxuriant hair and fueled idealized notions of female beauty in the West. So-called Circassian hair oils, dyes, and creams were enormously popular at the time of the American Civil War.)
(A photo of actual Circassian beauties around 1880.)
The horrible trade in female slaves from the Caucasus was alive and well in the mid-1800s, when an alleged glut in the market led to their devaluation. Good timing for American circus mogul P.T. Barnum. In May 1864, he wrote to one of his employees, John Greenwood, who had traveled to Ottoman Cyprus to try to buy a Circassian girl on Barnum’s behalf. Over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation in America, the circus owner wrote:
I still have faith in a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one very beautiful. But if they ask $4000 each, probably one would be better than two, for $8000 in gold is worth about $14,500 in U.S. currency. So one of the most beautiful would do. . . But look out that in Paris they don’t try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free. . . Yours Truly, P.T. Barnum
Barnum’s fascination with acquiring and exhibiting women in his shows took on the elements of a personal erotic and racial fantasy. Though most were “local girls,” as newspapers knew, Barnum billed his “Circassians” as escaped sex slaves and “the purest specimens of the white race.” Figments of Barnum’s imagination, these women joined the ranks of the dime-show freaks, part of the offbeat spectacle of bearded ladies, sword-swallowers, and snake-handlers that drew in paying crowds. Barnum’s harem girls enhanced their hair with beer to create a farfetched “Afro” look — exterior representations, can we say, of the crazy fantasies in Barnum’s own head?
(Daguerreotype of a “Circassian beauty” by Matthew Brady, New York, circa 1861. These intentional freaks dressed in the very opposite attire of their modest Central Asian “sisters.”)
(A major feature of the post-bellum American sideshows, Barnum’s racial and sexual fantasies showed up on postcards, cigarette advertisements, and fliers. An impressive gallery of “Moss-Haired Girls,” as these women were called, has been collected online at Sideshow World.)
(A trainload of “freaks” came through Terre Haute in 1869. The group included the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who had once toured the world but finally settled down in North Carolina. Indiana State Geologist E.T. Cox, who had been hoaxed once, rode with them. The conjoined twins, who married Southern women and whose sons fought for the Confederacy, did a European tour with P.T. Barnum in 1868.)
(Jasper Weekly Courier, August 12, 1900)
Obviously, this was not the kind of Circassian girl alleged by some gossiper or “yellow journalist” to have been given to Lew Wallace in Turkey.
On the eve of his return to America, the General tried to clear things up with the press. The Indianapolis Journal carried this twist in the story on June 30, 1884:
The website of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville gives a slightly different perspective altogether:
As his tour of duty as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1884, Lew Wallace was offered a number of gifts from his friend, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. These included Arabian horses, jewels, and works of art. As a representative of the government of the United States, Wallace graciously declined these expressions of friendship and gratitude. According to legend, as Wallace closed his office and packed his residence, the Sultan was able to secretly include the painting called The Turkish Princess, some elaborate carpets and a few other items in the shipping crates. The crates were delivered to Crawfordsville before Lew and Susan returned home. These items sent by the Sultan remained undiscovered by Wallace until he was back in Crawfordsville and opened the crates. The Turkish Princess, said to be one of the Sultan’s daughters, remains one of the highlights of the Study.
Wallace’s biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger add a further footnote: “Malicious gossip-mongers claimed that the sultan had also provided Wallace a Circassian slave girl for his carnal pleasures and commiserated with Susan Wallace on her husband’s alleged concubine. Both the sultan and the American minister had too much honor and mutual respect for such an arrangement.”
(The Turkish Princess, by Austrian Orientalist painter Leopold Müller, is the real Circassian girl and hangs in Wallace’s study in Crawfordsville to this day.)
Now are you ready for the big twist?
While researching this story, I discovered that “Circassophilia” is alive and well out in cyberspace.
When I stumbled across a striking painting of a Circassian beauty and a couple of attached photos on one website, I read the claim that this was no less than the “Gwaschemasch’e Kadın Efendi,” thirteenth wife of Turkish Sultan Abdül Hamid, friend of our own Lew Wallace. I would not have blamed the General if he’d taken notice of this great beauty.
Many websites, none of which looked legit, echoed this claim. If what the anonymous folks who clutter the internet with re-posts wanted to be true was true, this stunning Circassian woman was not just the Sultan’s wife, but an occult priestess who dabbled in fertility rituals.
One photo shows her offering some kind of sacrifice at the Neolithic Mnajdra temple in Malta in 1906. A documentary (totally fake) gives more alleged footage of “Princess Gwaschemasch’e” sporting pagan symbols painted on her body at this ancient Maltese fertility temple. Another photo shows the same woman with her mother in Paris in the 1890s, and a drawing of a Turkish building in flames bears the (highly convenient) caption: “Fire at Çırağan Palace (1910) — Gwaschemasche’s childhood home was completely destroyed, resulting in the loss of many priceless cultural artifacts including Gwaschemasche’s manuscripts.” The “princess,” we’re told, even contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a few decades after Wallace came back to the Midwest.
(The “Mother of Gwaschemash’e,” whose identity is cooked-up in a viral internet hoax, was based on a real 1876 painting by Jean-Léon Gerome, “Veiled Circassian Woman.”)
Turns out this is (or was) one of the biggest cyber hoaxes on the web. Perhaps thousands of internet users have been duped, especially on Tumblr. A website apparently dedicated to exposing it, Circassian Voices, carries the fantastic title: “The Gwaschemasch’e Hoax: Cult of Circassian Eroticism, Neopaganism, Sisterhood of Jihad, South American Hooligans, and E-manipulation.” Another supposed watchdog website, Knowing the Junsui, which stopped posting in 2009, will take you deep into the realm of what looks to me like a sprawling internet game, involving fabrication beyond even the usual tampering with Wikipedia and basic Photoshopping. Circassian Voices points out a YouTube video created by a “hooligan” group in Santiago, Chile, Las Santas Guerreras de Gwaschemasch’e (“Holy Warriors of Gwaschemasch’e” — note the feminine guerreras), then suggests the whole thing might have been deliberately concocted by female Chechen warriors. Sounds like a Jorge Luis Borges story to me!
But I’ll let you unravel all that. Too bad Lew Wallace isn’t around to clear things up. Alas, even the General might not be much help:
(Indianapolis Journal, June 30, 1884.)